Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is there an Echo in here?: Reviewing the new season of "Dollhouse"

The Fox sci-fi drama "Dollhouse" is a classic case of show improving the minute it gets out of its own way. When the series, created by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" mastermind Joss Whedon, debuted earlier this year, it had little more going for it than the good will of fans.
Sure, the show's premise -- a massively successful "secret" company that imprints human beings with various personalities -- was intriguing, but the execution left something to be desired. That's mainly because the lead character, Echo (Eliza Dushku) was, by definition, devoid of personality. She was, simply, a human doll, just wandering aimlessly through the "Dollhouse" of the title, waiting for her next mission.
It was hard to get invested in someone who doesn't have a soul. And most of the non-doll characters were evil, with the possible exception of Echo's handler Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix) and the obsessed FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) -- but even they were a little too intense and flawed to be relatable.
But, over time, the show opened up. We learned that Echo was slowly absorbing her personalities, evolving within the context of her "doll" persona. We learned more about Agent Ballard, who is completely infatuated with Echo's former self, Caroline. We learned that Dollhouse manager Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), wasn't entirely evil and was, herself, just a pawn in a sprawling corporation.
As the characters grew and the show's arc became more apparent, it got better. By the end of its first season, Dollhouse had become a fascinating, if still flawed, parable about humanity, exploitation and free will.
The new season beings Friday at 9 p.m., and it picks up where we left off. Echo is back at the Dollhouse, after having all her old identities downloaded into her at once by rogue doll Alpha. Ballard now works for the Dollhouse, much to the disapproval of Langton. Given the assignment Ballard sends Echo on (see the above photo), Langton's skepticism is understandable.
Meanwhile, Dr. Saunders is still dealing with the realization that she's actually a doll named Whiskey. Full of rage and sadness, she's acting out by tormenting Dollhouse techie Topher (Fran Kranz) with mice and, um, other stuff (Topher, as usual, gets the premiere episode's funniest moment, which involves him denying lustful feelings for Fozzie Bear).
And, for those of you who were wondering, the show doesn't seem to be ignoring the unaired "Dollhouse" episode "Epitaph One," even though that episode was only unavailable via download and on the first season DVD. Judging from the premiere, the series does seem to be sowing the seeds for the futuristic world we see in "Epitaph." However, if you haven't seen that episode, you'll still be able to follow the premiere.
"Dollhouse," much like its heroine, really seems to be evolving before our eyes, developing depth and a strong identity of its own. I'm looking forward to seeing where it's going.

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